"a working to overtake a leading rival," by 1971, probably a figurative use from U.S. football in reference to being behind in the score. From verbal phrase catch up, which was used from early 14c. in sense "raise aloft," c. 1400 as "to take up suddenly," and by 1846 in sense "get to the same point, overtake;" see catch (v.) + up (adv.).
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